Why Suzuki punches above its weight in MotoGP: Mat Oxley

“Suzuki works so well because it fuses strong work from Japan and Italy”

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David and Goliath stories always brighten up the racing world, and the story of Suzuki’s 2020 world championship MotoGP success – its first since 2002 – is one such tale. The Hamamatsu manufacturer has a much smaller race department that Honda, Ducati and Yamaha and punches above its weight thanks to people who know how to make the most of what they’ve got – financially, mechanically and philosophically.

Suzuki suffered in the early years of four-stroke MotoGP, when its GSV-R was left behind by Honda’s RC211V, Ducati’s Desmosedici and Yamaha’s YZR-M1. Factory engineers had badly underestimated what was needed, so that they lost one of their brightest, Australian Warren Willing, long before the inaugural race in 2002.

“I asked Suzuki about their four-stroke development, ‘Are you doing this or that?’,” remembered Willing, architect of the factory’s final success in the two-stroke 500cc era. “They said, ‘No, it’s not necessary’. So I said, ‘Well, Honda are doing this and that’. ‘No, no,’ they said, ‘Our technology is more advanced than Honda’s’. I said, ‘Really, how come?’ And they said, ‘Because our GSX-R1000 streetbike outsells Honda’s CBR1000’. So I turned to Garry [Taylor, Suzuki’s team manager at the time] and said, ‘Sorry, I’m out of here’.”

Suzuki’s humiliation continued for a decade, with just one race win from 170 races, and that in torrential rain at Le Mans. Perhaps the nadir of the factory’s messy struggle was a blue-on-blue incident during the 2003 Italian GP when team-mates John Hopkins and Kenny Roberts Junior took each other out due to a ride-by-wire throttle that refused to close.

“There’s a lot of electronics on these bikes, not all of them working like they should be,” a Suzuki engineer told me at the time. “We’ve had a nightmare with software and hardware problems, and maybe the throttle might not close when you want it to…”

Finally at the end of 2011 Suzuki quit, citing the global financial crisis, although many assumed the company had simply had all the humiliation it could handle.

Suzuki did return, four years later, with a completely new bike, the inline-four GSX-RR, to replace the GSV-R V4. Engine configuration is key to MotoGP performance as a V4 MotoGP bike makes more horsepower while an inlinefour handles better. It’s up to the engineers to decide which road to take, then work at maximising the positives and minimising the negatives of their chosen configuration.

MotoGP is all about compromise. Suzuki’s chief engineers Shinichi Sahara and Ken Kawauchi take this to heart more than anyone. Balance is their mantra.

“The most important thing is the balance of the bike,” says Kawauchi. “If we just increase horsepower it’s not ideal and if we only improve turning it’s not ideal. So we always work to extend the bike’s ability in all areas.”

“Suzuki showed what you can do if you stick to the basics”

Last year Suzuki won two grands prix on its way to winning the title with 23-year-old Spaniard Joan Mir. It’s significant that at both those races – at Valencia and Aragon – the GSX-RR was among the slowest through the speed trap, while the fastest bike – the Ducati – didn’t even get close to the podium.

The GSX-RR and Desmosedici are polar opposites. While Suzuki focuses on all-round performance, Ducati is obsessed with straightline speed. During recent years the Bolognese have introduced downforce aerodynamics, ride-height adjusters and holeshot devices to MotoGP, all designed to improve acceleration, so the Desmosedici is anything but balanced.

Andrea Dovizioso, who quit Ducati last season, summed it up: “Suzuki have shown what you can do if you concentrate on the basics,” he said, aiming his criticism straight at Ducati Corse general manager Gigi Dall’Igna.

Over the years Suzuki has taken great care to keep the GSX-RR evolving step by step, maintaining its equilibrium. It may not be the fastest motorcycle on the grid but it does everything well, except absolute top speed.

Crucially, the GSX-RR is rider-and tyrefriendly. Its inline-four engine, with its longer crankshaft, makes the bike easier to ride in corners. And Suzuki engineers understand that the critical aspect of engine and electronics performance is how they gel with MotoGP’s notoriously tricky spec Michelin tyres.

“If you use the tyres better than everyone else, even marginally, you gain a big advantage,” says Suzuki test rider Sylvain Guintoli.

Like the other Japanese factories Suzuki’s MotoGP department is split between bases in Japan and Europe, with a mix of Japanese and European staff. Seven-times MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi believes it’s not only the engineering that took Suzuki to the 2020 title but also creating a balanced working relationship between the team departments.

“Suzuki works so very well because I think Davide [Brivio, Suzuki team manager who joins the Alpine Renault F1 team this year] has made a fantastic job, fusing the work from Japan with some very strong work at the team in Italy,” says Rossi. “He’s able to convince the Japanese to work with the Europeans and Italians, so they make a very strong team. I think they’ve improved with this strong work.”

Suzuki is the only Japanese manufacturer in MotoGP with just two bikes on the grid, while Honda and Yamaha each have four. That may change next year when Rossi’s VR46 team is expected to move into MotoGP.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner

Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley